L. Benjamin Rolsky’s essay, “Taking Conservatism Seriously in the Era of #MAGA,” is the fifth installment in this month’s issue of the Forum. For this issue, we have invited a small cadre of religion scholars to participate in a “scholars’ roundtable” reflecting on the implications of a Trump presidency for the academic study (and teaching) of religion. Throughout the month we will be publishing pieces by a diverse group of scholars in the fields of religion and religious studies. Each scholar has been invited to share how the “Trump phenomenon” will shape (or has already shaped) their particular research, teaching, and activism as scholars of religion. Sarah E. Fredericks, Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics at the Divinity School, will close out the series by offering a response to the posts. We invite you to join the roundtable conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

Previous contributions to the roundtable:

  1. Anthony M. Petro (Boston University), “How Not to be a (Religious Demographic) Size Queen in an Epidemic”
  2.  Kent Brintnall (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), “It’s Complicated”
  3. Jawad Anwar Qureshi (University of Chicago), “‘I think Islam hates us’: Teaching Islam in an Islamophobic Era”
  4. Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, “Writing Latinxs into the Canon”

Taking Conservatism Seriously in the Era of #MAGA

by L. Benjamin Rolsky

In the lead up to the November 8th presidential election, multiple commentators contended that Donald Trump’s rise to electoral power would come at the expense of conservatism itself. Numerous conservative critics and news sources including George Will and The National Review came out against Trump by naming his brand of conservatism inconsistent with more moderate forms. References to former President and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower began to appear in an attempt to redirect conservatism away from its more fringe constituencies. Think pieces published by the likes of The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and NPR were equally hyperbolic during and following the election, yet in the opposite direction. Each utterance from Trump along the campaign trail seemed to ignite the righteous indignation of a large constituency of concerned Americans who disapproved of Trump’s lack of tact and class in his speeches. The worse the language got, however, the more assured many seemed to become of his inevitable defeat at the hands of a more skilled opponent. How could anyone elect this man based on what he says? Secretary Clinton’s experience and political prestige should make her the better candidate, right? If anything, this past election was less a referendum on conservatism, and more an indication of crisis on the progressive left and its continuing inability to comprehend the results of November 8th. Simply put, as scholars of religion in general and US American religions in particular, we need a new, more serious approach to the study of conservatism for our precarious and uncertain times.

President Trump’s initial weeks in office have been nothing short of the proverbial dumpster fire, and for good reason. His numerous executive orders have literally struck fear in the hearts of countless Americans and those visiting abroad who may not be able to return home. Such horrific acts can at least be parried by the court systems in the name of the constitution. What cannot be as easily diagnosed and addressed, however, is the appeal of the dumpster fire in the first place. In my estimation, the Trump campaign combined the best of two rhetorical worlds: Silicon Valley and the genre of reality television. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, ran the Trump campaign as if he was building a start-up by way of digital marketing and Facebook micro-targeting. Mass appeal would not be the goal of this conservative agenda, unlike the approach of Secretary Clinton. Kushner only invested capital in those regions and constituencies that would yield the highest ROI (Return on Investment). Anything outside this realm of knowledge, or episteme, was rejected as quickly as it was identified.

As such, Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” (#MAGA) was literally that, a tag line representing a much larger constellation of assumptions about American public life today: too many career politicians, too many regulations, too much federal spending, too many misused tax dollars, among other things. The fact that #MAGA could be read and interpreted in multiple ways strengthened the Trump campaign even more by allowing its supporters to use the slogan as a way of understanding their respective plights and resentments. In this regard, the appeal of the dumpster fire mirrors the appeal of reality television itself as presidential campaign and now as the Presidency. The tweets authored by Trump and others in his administration often verge on the outlandish. Many of them have resulted in equally vociferous tweets by those who disagree with what he’s doing. In this sense, the more drama, the better for Trump and Co. To understand these communications simply as conveying information misses much of their rhetorical power. Instead, the obscene character of these messages serves a very particular purpose: to generate interest based on the genre of the reality television show by way of the spectacle.

As scholar of religion Kathryn Lofton has warned, we must be attentive to the ways in which our means of entertainment can imprison us in an endless, socially mediated cycle of like/dislike, follow/unfollow, reply and reply and reply. “Studying popular culture means that you are always thinking about fraudulence,” argues Lofton. “Not because you seek to unveil the lie. No, the intellectual work is to explore misdirection as the commodity we cannot stop consuming.” Based on the type of campaign Trump and his son-in-law ran, attending to Lofton’s words has become more important than ever amidst claims to the authority of “alternative facts” in public deliberation. For critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the public is inherently vulnerable to sophisticated “rackets” due to its at times desperate nature. While this assumes very little critical thinking on behalf of those duped by such rackets, it does speak to the nature of the Trump campaign and his continuing, albeit contested, appeal in the oval office. If the invention of the internet can be understood as an example of the mass democratization of information, then the use of Twitter by the Trump administration serves as an equally important chapter in the history of American public life: mass misdirection by way of the entertainment industrial complex. Additionally, if the goal of the New Right was to organize discontent during the 1970s into something called “the Christian Right,” then it seems like today’s iteration of conservatism seeks to organize misdirection and attention by way of sophisticated branding and marketing relative to the American citizen as consumer.

The hyperbole that followed Trump’s election in think pieces across the internet was matched only by the hyperbole found in Trump’s campaign. Much of this writing focused on excavating the reasons for Trump’s victory based on gender, race, class, and religion. The white working-class male assumed a level of exposure and explanatory power virtually unparalleled in the history of the 20th century. Countless analyses discredited this type of commentary as reinforcing stereotypes about working-class peoples. While much of this remains debatable, what is not is the fact that similarly written think pieces and articles have begun to jettison their initial posture of anger, betrayal, and pain in favor of the type of analysis offered and executed by Lofton and those in this roundtable. In this sense, much of the recent writing on Trump has assumed a more sobered tone, one that acknowledges that things may never be the same again. While painful, this may be a necessary step along the road to substantive resistance through humanistic examinations of our contemporary present.

For too long, we have been distracted by the content of such obscenities, preferring to analyze their obvious shortcomings instead of investigating their rhetorical impact or electoral purpose. This has not been by accident. In fact, such a strategy has been front and center in various conservative campaigns since the 1960s, which helps explain the brilliance of Trump’s campaign as the latest iteration of conservatism in American public life. Instead of taking a wider view of Trump, much of the analysis has centered on one of many offensive aspects of his presidential agenda. Not only were such utterances “dog whistles” for those with ears to hear, but they were also attempts at misdirection to create discontent and righteous indignation among the nation’s more liberal and at times academic communities. This tactic has been particularly effective because for these communities, moral victories seem to be more important than electoral ones. For scholar of religion Stephen Prothero, there almost seems to be a sense of pride that is gained from this type of knowledge and cultural predominance. After all, per Prothero, only conservatives wage culture war in the name of nostalgic yearnings for a bygone past. Perhaps this has been and continues to be the case because such power isn’t actual power at all, but rather symbolic or faux-power, one that simply functions to validate the causes of the crusader, liberal or conservative.

As a result, we continue to examine conservatism as a movement at face value instead of delving deeper into its saliency for our times as well as times before. As anthropologist Susan Harding recently argued, notions of progress embedded within largely liberal notions of “religion” continue to consign conservative forms to the dustbins of history as retrograde attempts at civic engagement. “Another way of thinking about our current situation is to say that we are engaged in a profound and protracted contest over what counts as legitimate religion in America (and elsewhere),” Harding argues. “Our secular and secularizing concepts and presumptions are one way in which we do battle, but they blind us to the realities and force of our opposition.” Thus, we continue to be astonished by the unprecedented and thoroughly blindsided by its efficiency.

To take conservatism seriously is to first treat it on its own terms and not those defined by its interpellators. This means reading material beyond the assumed median of knowledge provided by sources such as The Nation, The New Republic, or The New York Times. In picking up the latest issue of Forbes magazine, for example, one could learn more about Trump’s brilliant son-in-law and campaign manager, Jared Kushner. As mentioned earlier, Kushner relied on a ruthless cost-benefit analysis in determining which constituencies were worth Trump’s time and money on the campaign trail. He hired some of the brightest minds from Silicon Valley to create digital marketing campaigns attuned to the ebbs and flows of social media. In fact, he was able to manage religio-political sentiment itself in real time by using Facebook and Google maps to track upwards of twenty different voter types within the Trump coalition.

Due to, or because of, the incendiary character of Trump’s run, this larger data-collecting apparatus remained, and continues to remain, obscured from view. Like its conservative predecessors, this version of the GOP took advantage of the latest means of communication and surveillance beginning with direct mail and the bible scorecard and ending with what I call GOP 3.0: an iteration of conservatism that came into shape due as much to its obscenities as to its superior electoral mechanics. “If the campaign’s overarching sentiment was fear and anger,” argues the Forbes author, “the deciding factor at the end was data and entrepreneurship.”

To take conservatism seriously is also to acknowledge our own complicity in the knowledge production about the conservative. This means having the nerve and determination to take up a self-reflexive project that investigates how conservatism has been analyzed since the early 20th century and how such tropes have become naturalized for certain constituencies of social elites in American public life. The fact that two Democratic political figures, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were taken to task for their insensitive remarks about working-class whites speaks strongly to this need. Phrases such as “deplorables” who cling to their “God, guns, and religion” can be connected directly to the earliest reports on those conservative Protestants who were foolish enough to face Clarence Darrow in the court of public opinion.

These sorts of classifications are the direct product of the social and culture privilege associated with symbolic or faux-power at the expense of actual understanding. To declare that cultural warfare only takes place on the political right is certainly to acknowledge a new argument, but it also reaffirms one’s own cultural superiority in the debate relative to one’s subject. In addition, it assumes a preferred moral high ground over and against the obscene other. A more productive engagement with conservative subjects and sources might ask, “Is Trump better understood as a symptom, or a cause, of something larger?” Thinking alongside Harding’s reasoning, we might also wonder, “With his election, we find ourselves, once again, shocked in the face of something we never expected to happen. Once again, we ask: who are they, where did they come from, and how could this have happened?”

While our subject continues to remain as real as the campaign that led to Trump’s election, it also seeks to remain in the background, preferring to direct abrasive speech instead of authoring it. Undervaluing conservative means of organizing political campaigns is something we no longer can afford to do either as citizens and/or as scholars of religion, yet it has defined liberal progressive reactions to conservative victories arguably since Reagan. Merely attending to what a candidate like Trump says arguably misses the point of the campaign and its electoral function in the public square. In summary, the more simply we can articulate Trump’s ascendance, the better equipped we will be to understand its appeal. This is what it means to take religion, the Trump phenomenon, and conservatism seriously in the 21st century.

L. Benjamin Rolsky is a recent graduate from Drew University’s PhD program in American Religious Studies. His work has appeared in a variety of popular and academic venues including Method and Theory in the Study of Religion and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion as well as The Christian Century, The Norman Lear Center, and The Marginalia Review of Books. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, the study of popular culture, and critical theory. He is currently working on a manuscript entitled, “Norman Lear and the Spiritual Politics of Religious Liberalism.” Once complete, he plans to begin research on a second book project that examines the history of the Christian Right across the 20th century entitled, “Inventing the Christian Right: A Religious History of the Public Square.”

 * Photo images: Trump at rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Aug. 21, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. (Mark Wallheiser | Getty Images); Reagan and Trump Illustration (The Daily Beast)